Opposite of left-handed

It seems like a trick question:

Zuǒpiězi de fǎnyìcí shì shénme?
What’s the opposite of left-handed?

The 21st Century Dictionary from China Renmin University Press dutifully offers definitions of “right-handed”:

1. 右手的 — “of the right hand”
2. 惯于使用右手的 — “accustomed to using the right hand”
3. 用右手做的 — “uses right hand to do/make”

But the phrasal definitions seem to indicate explanation, more than any standard oppositional term. And with my usual informants here in Beijing, quizzing the “opposite of left-handed” question has yielded nothing but quizzical looks and comments like, “uh, Idunno. ‘normal’?” I’m curious to hear what other Chinese say.

If it holds that there is no standard opposite, I wonder if there’s a relationship to the “pirated / not pirated” book question we discussed on Sinoglot before. The hypothesis would go something like this:

Language X will tend to have a standard pair of opposites, A and B, when both A and B are reasonably common.

To go back to “pirated” for a moment, what I was struck by in that case was that Mandarin had a standard opposite for “pirated book” and “genuine book” (盗版 dàobǎn, 正版 zhèngbǎn respectively) while English, I claimed, lacked a standard pair of opposites. By the above hypothesis, the reason would be that the pirating of books is simply not common enough to have warranted creation of the pair.

Now regarding right/left-handed: the China that I’m familiar with does not embrace left-handedness. Just the other day, my daughter was telling me about a second-grade classmate who claimed the reason his handwriting was so bad is that he used to write with his left hand but his parents had made him switch to the right. And in my own daily life I very rarely come across lefties.

Consequently, might it be that right-handedness — or at least, using the right hand — is so common that it simply hasn’t warranted having its own word?

14 responses to “Opposite of left-handed”

  1. Ma Lina says:

    I think right-handedness is so standard in China that it simply doesn’t require a word to describe it. My understanding is that Chinese schools very quickly train lefties to write with their right hand (as I’ve heard Catholic schools in the U.S. used to do as well). I had long conversations with my Chinese classmates and professors about this, as they frequently commented on the strangeness of my left-handedness. One professor told me that enforcing right-handedness was easier for teachers of primary grades; with so many children in a classroom all struggling with learning to write, teachers couldn’t spend extra time working with lefties. Don’t know if that’s true, but it definitely seems the left-to-right conversion takes place as soon as kids start school.

  2. The little kid (是周岁, 三年级) sitting next to me in this 游乐场 I took my kids to on this 儿童节 says the opposite of 左撇子 is 右撇子, which the 搜狗 IME has no trouble with.

  3. In Arabic cultures left-handedness is also often trained out of people. That said a good friend of mine was a lefty and managed to keep his left-handedness, which is fortunate because in Arabic, being written right to left, left-handedness can be a benefit. Thought the rest of the Arabic-writing world just holds the pen differently than you would with writing English.

    My sister is left-handed and was (wrongly, I feel) encouraged by a teacher to switch. Her handwriting isn’t great but now she uses left for half the tasks in her life but right for the rest. She’s not really ambidextrous because any specific task always gets the same hand.

    All in all, it seems that 字 looks like 字 and much like stroke order doesn’t matter to the reader, the hand used to get the pen in that shape shouldn’t matter either. Damn handists.

  4. Syz says:

    Randy: interesting datum there. Naturally I had asked my people here about the possibility of saying 右撇子; they said it sounded weird and “nobody says that.” Clearly they’re wrong in the absolute sense, but I still wonder if your 3rd grader is just responding by analogy rather than offering a word that people commonly use or even think of.

    A bit more data:
    from google.com.hk
    92,100 hits for 右撇子
    4.5m for 左撇子

    vs English on google.com
    3.98m for “right handed”
    5.62m for “left handed”

    not that I’m very happy with google hits as data, but…

  5. Sima says:

    A couple of thoughts:
    Firstly, I don’t understand 左撇子 as simply being left-handed. It strikes me as much more like ‘a leftie’, ‘a cack-hander’ – I guess that would make it either humorous, affectionate, derogatory, or some combination of the above. I might be reading to much into this, and am probably just applying my own anti-left-handed prejudices, but it has never struck me as requiring a right-handed counterpart.

    I have to use the terms left-handed and right-handed, day in day out with my cricket team. No one has ever objected to my use of 左手的 and 右手的, whether referring to people or equipment specifically designed for one group or other. I did, however, have to make a little extra effort to find and encourage left-handers.

    Finally, I have a very clear recollection of my first day of calligraphy class. The (excellent) teacher made it very clear to the two or three left-handers in the class that they needn’t bother coming in future. This struck me as a little harsh. It seemed to strike them that way too.

  6. Sima: was that based on the teacher being unable to teach someone left-handed due to form issues, or was he just a being a jerk?

  7. Sima says:

    Kellen, I guess you could view it either way! I saw him as an excellent, if very traditional, teacher. I think he sincerely believed it was not possible to write well if you were left handed. I can see his point; I can’t see the brush moving in the right way for a left-hander. That said, it seemed very tough on people having their first go at calligraphy – how far were any of us going to get in one semester anyway?

    I’d be interested to know if there has ever been an accomplished left-handed Chinese calligrapher.

  8. Duncan says:

    Sima, 写字之法,在心不在手

    But then I’m a leftie so what would I know?

  9. Sima says:

    So Duncan, could you be our accomplished left-handed Chinese calligrapher? Do you write much? Did you find people scoffing at you when you first started? Have you found any particular strokes difficult?

  10. I wonder what he thinks about people who play the piano with their feet…

  11. Duncan says:

    No unfortunately I’ve only dabbled (and poorly, I still write like a Chinese elementary student, or so I’m told); I do find the the whole art to be a bit overburdened with tradition though – if you say you do calligraphy that’s pretty much inviting someone to ask you to write the first few lines of the 文心雕龙 or something from memory – God forbid you can’t do it – and you’d better pray your semi-cursive is as good as that of 王羲之, and what’s that, you don’t know seal script?!? No, in my book a foreigner learning calligraphy is only one step up from the foreigner who wears that silk kung fu shirt with the embroidered dragons on it about town.

    Now I’ve had my rant, there does seem to be this guy http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_62d5732d0100iaoz.html, 高菲, who appears to be a leftie calligrapher, but that very characteristic appears to have made him a bit of a celebrity so I suppose it’s extremely rare.

  12. Sima says:

    Good work, Duncan!

    Now where did I put that silk kung fu shirt…

  13. Syz says:

    Duncan: here’s the role model you’re looking for

  14. Syz says:

    OK, now that I fixed my html, you should be able to see the pic.

    @Sima: so is there a way to ask one of your potential cricket players, when you meet for the first time, “Are you right-handed?” I mean, rather than asking if they’re left-handed.

    The point about this word being more like “leftie” is right on the mark, btw. And given that, and the lack of an English parallel to something like “leftie” or “southpaw”, I’m wondering if there is anything interesting in the 左撇子 thing at all anymore. :-/

Leave a Reply